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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Hollywood writers strike, declining television ratings and the budgetary pressures that accompany an economic slowdown have conspired to make it a tough stretch for U.S. advertisers this year -- so the Super Bowl couldn't come at a better time.
Always the biggest TV event of the year, Super Bowl XLII has taken on added significance as advertisers look for "event programming," or shows audiences watch live instead of recording to watch later, often skipping commercials.
"As ratings continue to erode, the Super Bowl and any of the other big events look even more glorious than they did before," said Steve Farella, chief executive of TargetCast, an independent media buying agency.
That is particularly true this year, media experts said, as U.S. audiences have been left without some of the most popular prime-time TV shows because of a 10-week-old strike by Hollywood screenwriters. Prime-time network ratings were down an estimated 10 percent for the fall season.
"It could be the highest-rated Super Bowl in history," said Brad Adgate, director of research at Horizon Media. "The competing networks usually back down anyway. But with an audience starved for TV entertainment, it could be huge."
Even before the strike, News Corp's Fox Broadcasting had sold more than 90 percent of the commercial time for the February 3 championship football game, with a source familiar with the deals saying prices climbed as high as $3 million for a 30-second spot.
Average prices this year have run around $2.7 million, the source said, up from $2.6 million last year when CBS broadcast the game.
Among the advertisers who bought commercial time this year are Anheuser-Busch, General Motors, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Only one 30-second spot remains for the broadcast, the source said.
Even at prices approaching $100,000 per second, advertisers who booked time on the Super Bowl broadcast appear to be winners, particularly since the strike has already caused the cancellation of another major advertising event, the Golden Globes Awards telecast.
Now the Oscars, second in importance only to the Super Bowl in the minds of many marketers, could be the next victim of the labor troubles.
David Scardino, an entertainment specialist with media buying firm RPA, described the Super Bowl as a "sure thing" for advertisers, adding that a good match-up between teams could make it a blockbuster this year.
"If the undefeated New England Patriots make it to the game, the Super Bowl could break all records," he said.
Last year, CBS' broadcast was the second-most watched Super Bowl of all-time, averaging 93.15 million viewers. Some 94.1 million people tuned in to watch the game in 1996.
"The Super Bowl is always a good investment because it always does a great number and you always know that year after year, no matter who is playing, that it's going to do a good number," said Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast at media buyer Carat North America.
But Donchin points out that it's not simply a matter of advertisers moving their spending from prime-time TV to the Super Bowl.
For one thing the Super Bowl essentially sold out months ago, and some advertisers refuse to pay the millions of dollars it costs to land a 30-second spot. Also, the event is usually best suited for big product launches or extraordinary commercials.
"The Super Bowl is a whole other animal," he said. "For that kind of money you have to have either a new campaign or a special commercial."
TargetCast's Farella said, "When you buy the Super Bowl or the Golden Globes or the Oscars you tend to prepare marketing programs around them. Nobody would ever buy them to put in a regular advertisement. You buy them to create a marketing event."
That's one reason a cancellation of the Academy Awards would cause such problems for advertisers, Farella said. "I think the first thing any marketer would do is get right on the phone through their agency or directly with the network and say, 'Settle the strike."'